Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"Historical Heartthrobs" is WAY More Than a Sexy History Book

"The dreamers by day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes to make it possible" --The real life 'Lawrence of Arabia'

We've been hearing for ages now that Nerdy is the new sexy, but it seems the author of Zest Books' Historical Heartthrobs is ready to prove that that's always been the case.

Kelly Murphy has created a book that makes history romantic, and focuses on figures who don't often receive their due. Case in point: the tagline of the book is "50 timeless crushes", but JFK is nowhere to be found, and Marie Antoinette only gets a 2/5 on the "Heat factor scale". Looks aren't everything in this surprisingly measured title.

This book could have quickly turned into a weird objectification of historical gents and ladies, but Murphy establishes early on that she's not here to play that game. The figures included are rated based on a variety of elements. First they each have a mini-biography along with a photo, the tale of their sex lives (or lack thereof), why they matter, their best feature, how high their "heat factor" is, and quotables either from or about them. The book is put together like a middle school scrapbook, but like it was created by professional middle schoolers (if that were a thing). The result is a collection of portraits that humanize men and women who we may not think about as, well, men and women.

Take, for instance, the first entry in the book--Queen Cleopatra herself. While she defies Murphy's first rule of "verifiable hotness" (physically speaking), she led an interesting and powerful life, and didn't let anything stop her from maintaining her country's power. She wasn't a sex symbol for the sake of it, she just didn't want to be married to her brother, and the Romans were hot.

On the other side of things is John Wilkes Booth, a surprising selection for obvious reasons, but even assassins had their human side (probably) and Booth gets included for the life he led before going trigger happy. Did you know, for instance, that he was a classically trained and relatively successful actor? In fact, it was his reputation in the theatrical world that granted him access to Lincoln's viewing box in Ford's Theatre in the first place.

Historical Heartthrobs is part of a modern trend in history books. I don't know why people think history is boring, but apparently they do, and the way to make it interesting is the same way People and US Weekly sell any copies at all: modern authors have begun explicitly promising scandal and sex appeal over dates and battle stories. But while titles like History Unzipped focus on how the condom came to be and where exactly Napoleon's penis is today, Historical Heartthrobs redefines sexy altogether. How else would Nelly Bly*, who only married for money and then remained single in favor of advancing her career in journalism, receive an almost perfect score on the heat factor (by contrast, Mata Hari only gets a 3/5)?

In fact, most of the historical figures included overcame some adversity, because of their gender or their race, or a disability. Triumphing in the face of challenges even boosts one's heat factor, and so even though Bessie Coleman and Amelia Earhart had similar achievements, Bessie comes out on top. Murphy recognizes civil rights activists, feminists, world leaders, entertainers, spies,etc; the list goes on and includes faces and names both instantly recognizable and somehow lost in time. She doesn't give anyone a free pass, though, and so points get knocked off for things like radical behavior, poor leadership skills, and hot tempers.

My copy of Heartthrobs is now full of sticky notes where I discovered a new interesting person or personal hero. I've pulled out quotes with which I quickly fell in love. Granted, each person included only gets 2-3 pages on their entire lives, but that's alright. The profiles and sidebars should inspire interest in each and every one of the 50 people included, but they are by no means comprehensive biographies. That's where the "further reading" section comes in--and this is where you can really see how prevalent this theme is in publishing today. A peek at a few of Murphy's sources, however, will show just how unique her title is among its cousins.

At the end of the day, Heartthrobs is an enjoyable, fair-handed approach to the humanity behind 50 of the world's "hottest" and coolest historical figures. Highly recommend for the romantic historian in your life.

*If you don't know who Nelly Bly was, like I didn't before reading this book, you should check her out. She was truly an inspirational woman who needs way more time in the limelight.

To pick up your copy in time for Valentine's Day, check out Historical Heartthrobs' Amazon page, your local Barnes and Noble, or directly from the Zest books website.

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